Home-grown Terror

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For a sense of the continuity of the of the terrorist tradition in America, consider this actual sequence of events: The FBI smashes a dead-serious plot to overthrow the federal government and reveals that for more than a year the right-wing militias involved were undergoing army-style training, fired up by inflammatory talk radio. They Planned to use their bombs, rifles, and machine guns to wage guerrilla warfare on American cities, and they claimed friends and allies in government and the military. They aimed, in one reporter’s words, to ”bomb selected buildings, seize public utilities, blast bridges, terrorize Jews, appropriate Federal Reserve gold, assassinate fourteen Congressmen, and set up a dictatorship.” The goal: to remove all liberal and anti-Christian forces from government, not least the liberal President and his activist wife.

This happened in January 1940.

Americans have never needed instruction from abroad in launching the organized mayhem we call terrorism.

However you define it, terrorism has seldom been long absent from the American landscape. In this century we have endured attacks by anarchists and labor militants and ethnic-based nationalist groups. At mid-century, Puerto Rican groups carried out some spectacular actions, including a 1950 attack on President Truman’s home and a bloody 1954 assault on Congress. Cuban and Croat exile organizations have often been active on American soil. During the Vietnam years, the Weathermen and other leftist bodies undertook widespread bombing campaigns that peaked in 1969 and 1970.

But the longest tradition of political terrorism lies on the ultra-right. The original Ku Klux Klan, during Reconstruction, was probably the biggest, most successful terrorist movement in American history, systematically practicing assassination, random murder, and intimidation. Since then, a succession of armed militias has arisen to combat a federal government supposedly usurped by conspiracies opposed to American liberties and values, starting with the “shirt” groups and Christian Front of the thirties and continuing through the Minutemen and revived Klan of the sixties to the neo-Nazi militants who began to make their appearance in the eighties. Though the bombing in Oklahoma City represented a leap in scale, it was hardly new in introducing terrorism to America, in coming out of the radical right, or in expressing domestic rather than international grievances. Americans have never needed instruction from abroad in launching the organized mayhem that we call terrorism.

The rebels whose ambitious plans open this article belonged to an organization called the Christian Front. In the late 1930s ultra-right, fascist, and anti-Semitic groups flourished in the United States, and some were violent. Their threats of terrorism and armed insurrection, largely forgotten today, caused wide concern, and the crisis did not abate until it was replaced by the far more immediate dangers of the Second World War.

That past experience with terrorism holds real lessons, both about what drives people to such extreme actions and about what can counter them. The Christian Front terrorists of the late 1930s were motivated by ideas and concerns almost identical to those of today’s white-supremacy movements and armed militias. And then as now, the government took actions that backfired and may have actually increased support for the dissidents.

The Christian front was but one of several hundred ultraright and anti-Semitic organizations in 1930s America. Most were tiny, but a few had members in the thousands. The best known included the German-American Bund, which aped the military style and rhetoric of Nazi Germany, and the Silver Legion, or Silver Shirts, led by William Dudley Pelley. The Silver Shirts’ more than twenty thousand members, concentrated mainly in the West, trained openly for armed confrontation. Their field marshal Roy Zachary gained national renown in 1938 by announcing that if no one else was prepared to assassinate President Roosevelt, he’d do it himself. Zachary and Pelley became popular speakers for the far-right groups and clubs that sprang up all over the country in 1936 and 1937, amid the New Deal and a wave of labor unrest. In these organizations, few doubted that communism was simply a front for Jewish conspiracy, a belief fomented in that notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion .

Probably the most dangerous group was the Christian Front, founded by the radio-show host Father Charles E. Coughlin. Coughlin was originally a supporter of the New Deal, but like many Catholics he was deeply affected by the Spanish Civil War. Many on the American far right saw the war, begun in 1936 when the right-wing armed forces of Spain rebelled against a democratically elected leftist coalition, as a life-and-death struggle between Christian civilization and Jewishbacked communism. By 1938 Coughlin was saying on his weekly radio show that the Jews had started the Russian and Spanish revolutions and would soon turn America’s cities into “another Barcelona.” He exhorted his listeners to arm, train, and organize a Christian Front against the Red Front.